When we first mentioned to our oldest son, Brennan, that we were heading out on a road trip through New Mexico and Texas he told us that we just had to stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I’d never heard of this park before and thought perhaps he was mistaken and it was a state park. No, he was adamant it was a US National Park. He’d been there before and actually climbed Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. I subsequently checked out the park website and included this national park on our itinerary.
We camped at the Pine Springs Campground, not much more than a large asphalt parking lot with sites along the perimeter. We decided this was not a great camping park, but its 80 miles of hiking trails in the Guadelupe Mountains more than made up for its lack of campsite aesthetics. We arrived mid-afternoon, claimed our campsite and checked out the Visitor Center where we picked up our trail maps and brochures. We noted, by the way, in the park brochure warnings about cacti, rattlesnakes, scorpions and centipedes… all possibly painful encounters.
It was a windy, windy night, but the wind calmed by morning and we drove seven miles to the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead and headed out along a desert path to the historic Pratt Cabin. The path was well-marked through desertscape, across a stream or two and then through forests of Texas madrone and maples and oaks that were just beginning to change to their autumn colors.
According to Wiki, Wallace Pratt, a pioneer petroleum geologist, ‘donated 5,632 acres, which included McKittrick Canyon, to the National Park Service, forming the core of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.’ Included in the grant was his former home, Pratt Cabin to which we walked. The cabin is cozy and comfortable, but It’s quite a hike in, through some rough terrain, so it’s no wonder as the Pratts grew older, the cabin was less accessible to them. I can imagine them sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs and just taking in all the beauty and peace around them. The rocking chairs are still there for visitors.
At the recommendation of a volunteer ranger, we continued along the trail to the Notch. If you watched David’s last video, you’ll already know the adrenaline rush we experienced there. If not, watch our Encounter with a Rattlesnake here.
We had planned to climb Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, the following morning, but the wind returned with a fury. Blue shook and shuddered and rattled the whole night through and the forecast called for more of the same throughout the day. Peak climbing didn’t seem prudent, so instead we packed up our campsite and headed 110 miles west to El Paso to buy supplies, do laundry and take showers. A night in a hotel oblivious to the winds was most appreciated.
The following day was still a bit windy, but the forecast showed lessening winds over the next couple of days. We headed back to Guadelupe and claimed another campsite. On the return trip, we were quite aware of impressive El Capitan in the distance. At 8,085 ft (2,464 m), El Capitan is the 10th-highest peak in Texas and ‘is an exposed portion of a Permian period reef uplifted and exposed by tectonic activity during the late Cretaceous period.” This iconic promontory literally looms over the U.S. 62/180 highway and has been a natural landmark to generations of travelers who have passed through this stark and arid land.
It was too late in the day to tackle a long trail and too early to just sit around so we settled for a short, but interesting, interpretive nature walk to The Pinery. Here the ruins of a Butterfield Express stagecoach station with an interesting history still remained.
From 1858-1861, the Butterfield Express delivered mail and passengers from St. Louis to San Franciso on a semi-weekly basis, 2800 miles in a max of 25 days and The Pinery was one of its many rest stops en route. As an interesting aside, John Butterfield, the owner of the Butterfield Express, convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo to consolidate their express company with his company forming… wait for it… The American Express Company! We love all the bits and pieces of trivia we derive from these park walks.
The wind subsided during the night. We rose early to a calm, sunny day and hit the trail to Guadelupe Peak by 0800. The trail is listed as a ‘strenuous’ hike with a 3,000’ elevation gain and it lived up to all expectations. The well-trodden trail was easy enough to follow, but tough at times to negotiate. Rocky, steep and rugged, we stumbled regularly. Rarely was the trail smooth going and many times it was only a 12-18” wide ledge which required concentration with each step.
The climb was not a competition, not a race, but rather the day’s goal. A few times we passed other hikers and many times hikers passed us. It was reassuring to see so many folks our age, healthy and fit, climbing to the peak. The continuous ‘up’ was tough, but the views were stupendous. We stopped whenever we needed to take a break or catch our breaths. When we finally reached the ‘Top of Texas’ at 8,751’ (2667m) there were about 20 other hikers there, resting, snacking and taking in the 360-degree views. From above, we got a totally different perspective of El Capitan. We duly signed the peak register and had our photo taken alongside the peak’s monument.
Coming down the mountain trail was a different story. It seemed much more precipitous going down than it did coming up. Bare rock that we’d scrambled up was much more challenging on the steep downhill slope.
By the time we reached the bottom, our knees and quads were definitely complaining. We made the ascent in 3-1/2 hours and the descent in 3 hours… not bad for old farts. Vitamin I was definitely a requirement at bedtime. We were sore and ‘stove-up’, but like all accomplishments, big and small, we were satisfied with the day’s performance. We had finished what we started.
We had hoped to hike several more trails, but Mother Nature was not going to cooperate. The forecast called for increasingly strong winds and plummeting temperatures. Maybe a return visit to this park is in order, but now seemed a good opportunity to continue our trip further south.
Join us next time as we head to Big Bend National Park in the far south of Texas on the Mexican border. Vamanos!